Other Wars Imagined

In early October I’m giving a keynote at a conference in Leipzig on Imaginations and Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition.  There’s an interesting interview with the organiser Steffi Marung here, and you can find the full programme (in English) and more details here.

I’ve been trying to work out what I might do, and this is what I’ve come up with; it’s still a draft, and the presentation is very much in development, so I’d welcome any comments or suggestions.  I see this as part of a comprehensive re-working of my essay on “The everywhere war” – which desperately needs it (it was written to order and in very short order).

Other Wars Imagined: visuality, spatiality and corpography

When Samuel Hynes wrote his classic account of A War Imagined he identified two ways in which the First World War transformed English (and by implication European) culture. First the emergence of a new visual field disclosed military violence in selective but none the less shocking ways: the half-tone block allowed photographs to be printed in newspapers, and cinema provided an even more vivid rendering of industrialised violence. Second the new dislocation of time and space was epitomised in what Hynes called ‘the death of landscape’ – the ‘annihilation of Nature’ and the monstrous appearance of ‘anti-landscape’ – and the substitution of abstract, ‘de-rationalized and de-familiarized’ spaces of pulverized geometries. This presentation explores the implications of Hynes’s views for the imaginative geographies of later modern war. Less concerned with representation – with images as mirrors of military violence – I focus on performative effects and, in the company of Judith Butler, consider the ways in which imaginative geographies enter into the very conduct of war. The visual technologies are different, so I pay close attention to the digital production of targets and to counter-geographies that fill these spaces with ordinary men, women and children. The formation of this counter-public sphere is contested – propaganda has never been more aggressive in its deformations – and so I also examine the implications of a ‘post-truth regime’ for critical thought and action. But the spaces of military and paramilitary violence are different too – no longer abstract and linear – and I suggest some of the ways in which an embodied corpography can subvert the cartographic imaginaries of previous modern wars. This critical manoeuvre also has vital implications for international humanitarian law and the constitution of war zones as what, not following Giorgio Agamben, I treat as spaces of exception. Throughout I draw on examples from my research on Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq and Syria.

If you don’t know Hynes’ book, first published in 1990 – it helped me think through some of the ideas I sketched in “The natures of war” – here is a review by P.N. Furbank from the LRB.

Cinematic Corpographies

News from Eileen Rositzka of her new book, Cinematic Corpographies: Re-Mapping the War Film Through the Body.  We’ve been corresponding since she started work on the project at St Andrews (she’s now at the Free University of Berlin), and I’m thrilled to see it in print (and on my screen):

Writing on the relationship between war and cinema has largely been dominated by an emphasis on optics and weaponised vision. However, as this analysis of the Hollywood war film will show, a wider sensory field is powerfully evoked in this genre. Contouring war cinema as representing a somatic experience of space, the study applies a term recently developed by Derek Gregory within the theoretical framework of Critical Geography. What he calls “corpography” implies a constant re-mapping of landscape through the soldier’s body. These assumptions can be used as a connection between already established theories of cartographic film narration and ideas of (neo)phenomenological film experience, as they also entail the involvement of the spectator’s body in sensuously grasping what is staged as a mediated experience of war. While cinematic codes of war have long been oriented almost exclusively to the visual, the notion of corpography can help to reframe the concept of film genre in terms of expressive movement patterns and genre memory, avoiding reverting to the usual taxonomies of generic texts.

Contents include:

Measuring the Trenches: Corpographies of the First World War

From Above and From Within: Aerial Views and Corpographic Transformations in the WWII Combat Film

Dismembering War: Touch and fragmentation in Anthony Mann’s Men in War

Uncharting Territories: The Vietnam War’s Shattering of the Senses

Zero Dark Thirty: Corpographies of the War on Terror

Insurgent terrain

Just available from Gastón Gordillo: ‘Terrain as insurgent weapon: An affective geometry of warfare in the mountains of Afghanistan’, Political Geography (2018) [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2018.03.001].

Gastón explains:

My argument…   is that the irreducibility of terrain can be best examined through the bodily experiences, affects, and agency of the human actors engaging it da lens I call an affective geometry. This is not the Euclidian or Cartesian geometry of mathematized grids, coordinates, and straight lines abstracted from bodies and affects. This is the qualitative, non-linear geometry conceptualized by Spinoza (1982), attentive to how bodies affect and are affected by other bodies in a multiplicity of ways, which range from negative ways that may diminish the body’s capacity to act to positive ways that may expand the body’s powers for action.

In analyzing how bodies are affected by and affect terrain, an affective geometry can be seen as a materialist phenomenology that conceives of human bodies in their subjective interiority and dispositions and also as mobile, self-propelling bodies that in sit- uations of combat dand as long as they remain able bodiesd walk, run, climb rocks, duck on the ground, fall in ditches, shoot, feel exhausted hiking a mountain, and feel pain if hit by gunfire.

 

Turning to the Korengal Valley, and drawing on the work of Sebastien Junger and Tim Hetherington (especially Restrepo: see here for a commentary that meshes with this post) Gastón shows how terrain was opaque, threatening, even penetrative to the US military – for all the ‘imperial verticality’ of its air power – and that the mountains (in all their ‘ambient thickness’) ‘confused them, tired them, and disrupted imperial phantasies of spatial mastery’, whereas their enemies, who weaponised the terrain far more effectively, were able to realise an ‘insurgent verticality’ though their knowledge of and, indeed, intimacy with the mountains.

Sound(ing)s

DAUGHTRY Listening to warMy interest in the militarisation of vision is longstanding, but it’s important not to exaggerate the salience of an increasingly ‘optical war’.  Through ‘The natures of war’ project (see DOWNLOADS tab) I’ve also been drawn to the importance of sound in conducting, surviving and even accounting for military violence (see, for example, herehere, and here).  And, as Martin Daughtry‘s remarkable Listening to war (2015) shows, sound continues to be significant in later modern war too.

Even its absence is significant, sometimes performative: think of all those video feeds from Predators and Reapers that, as Nasser Hussain so brilliantly reminded us, are silent movies – apart from the remote commentary from pilots and sensor operators:

‘The lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.

The contemporary militarisation (or weaponisation) of sound is double-edged, and I mean that in several sense.

First, Mary Roach has a revealing chapter in Grunt: the curious science of humans at war (2016) on what she calls ‘Fighting by ear: the conundrum of noise’.  It turns out that 50 – 60 per cent of situational awareness comes from hearing – and yet the sound of war can be literally deafening.  The damage is often permanent, but in the heat of battle hearing loss makes it difficult to parse the torrent of noise – to distinguish offensive and defensive fires, to detect direction and range, and to send and receive vital communications.  Mary explains:

ROACH GruntFor decades, earplugs and other passive hearing protection have been the main ammunition of military hearing conservation programs. There are those who would like this to change, who believe that the cost can be a great deal higher. That an earplug can be as lethal as a bullet. Most earplugs reduce noise by 30-some decibels. This is helpful with a steady, grinding background din — a Bradley Fighting Vehicle clattering over asphalt (130 decibels), or the thrum of a Black Hawk helicopter (106 decibels). Thirty decibels is more significant than it sounds. Every 3-decibel increase in a loud noise cuts in half the amount of time one can be exposed without risking hearing damage. An unprotected human ear can spend eight hours a day exposed to 85 decibels (freeway noise, crowded restaurant) without incurring a hearing loss. At 115 decibels (chainsaw, mosh pit), safe exposure time falls to half a minute. The 187-decibel boom of an AT4 anti-tank weapon lasts a second, but even that ultrabrief exposure would, to an unprotected ear, mean a permanent downtick in hearing. Earplugs are less helpful when the sounds they’re dampening include a human voice yelling to get down, say, or the charging handle of an opponent’s rifle. A soldier with an average hearing loss of 30 decibels may need a waiver to go back out and do his job; depending on what that job is, he may be a danger to himself and his unit. “What are we doing when we give them a pair of foam earplugs?” says Eric Fallon, who runs a training simulation for military audiologists a few times a year at Camp Pendleton. “We’re degrading their hearing to the point where, if this were a natural hearing loss, we’d be questioning whether they’re still deployable. If that’s not insanity, I don’t know what is.”

TCAP

For that reason the US military has been experimenting with what it calls ‘Tactical Communication and Protective Systems‘ (‘Tee-caps’, shown above): ear protectors that incorporate radio communications.  They are a response both to the cacophony and the geometry of war:

No one, in the heat of a firefight, is going to pause to take off her helmet, pull back her ear, insert the plug, and repeat the whole process on the other side, and then restrap the helmet. There’s time for this on a firing range, and there might have been time on a Civil War battlefield, where soldiers got into formation before the call to charge…  You knew when the mayhem was about to start, and you had time to prepare, whether that meant affixing bayonets or messing with foamies. There’s no linear battlefield any more. The front line is everywhere. IEDs go off and things go kinetic with no warning. To protect your hearing using earplugs, you’d have to leave them in for entire thirteen-hour patrols where, 95 percent of the time, nothing loud is happening. No one does that.

Saydnaya 1 JPEG

Second, sounds can intimidate – sometimes deliberately so – but they can also be reverse-engineered to reveal the geometry of violence.  One obvious example is the use of sound-ranging to locate artillery batteries on the Western Front in the First World War; but less obvious, and of critical importance, soundscaping can form an important part of a forensic investigation into crimes of war. This brings me to yet another mesmerising project from Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture agency. Eyal explains:

In 2016 Forensic Architecture was commissioned by Amnesty International to help reconstruct the architecture of Saydnaya – a secret Syrian detention center – from the memory of several of its survivors, now refugees in Turkey.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians, including protestors, students, bloggers, university professors, lawyers, doctors, journalists and others suspected of opposing the regime, have disappeared into a secret network of prisons and detention centers run by the Assad government. Saydnaya, located some 25 kilometers north of Damascus in an East German-designed building dating from the 1970s, is one of the most notoriously brutal of these places.

Torture has become routinised there – and not as a weapon in the grotesque arsenal of ‘enhanced interrogation’ (which, for any Trump fans who have stumbled into this site in error, has been demonstrated countless times not to work anyway).  Amnesty could not be clearer:

There are no interrogations at Saydnaya. Torture isn’t used to obtain information, but seemingly as a way to degrade, punish and humiliate. Prisoners are targeted relentlessly, unable to “confess” to save themselves from further beatings. Survivors say they dreaded family visits as they were always followed by extensive beatings.

Eyal continues:

As there are no recent photographs of its interior spaces, the memories of Saydnaya survivors are the only resource with which to recreate the spaces, conditions of incarceration and incidents that take place inside.

In April 2016, a team of Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture researchers travelled to Turkey to meet a group of survivors who have come forward because they wanted to let the world know about Saydnaya.

To understand the role of sound in the investigation, what Eyal calls ‘ear-witnessing’, here is Oliver Wainwright writing about the project in the Guardian:

“Architecture is a conduit to memory,” says Weizman, describing how an Arabic-speaking architect [Hania Jamal] built a digital model on screen as detainees described specific memories and events. “As they experienced the virtual environment of their cells at eye level, the witnesses had some flashes of recollection of events otherwise obscured by violence and trauma.”

One drop of water

Inmates were constantly blindfolded or forced to kneel and cover their eyes when guards entered their cells, so sound became the key sense by which they navigated and measured their environment – and therefore one of the chief tools with which the Forensic team could reconstruct the prison layout. Using a technique of “echo profiling”, sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan was able to determine the size of cells, stairwells and corridors by playing different reverberations and asking witnesses to match them with sounds they remembered hearing in the prison.

“Like a form of sonar, the sounds of the beatings illuminated the spaces around them,” says Abu Hamdan. “The prison is really an echo chamber: one person being tortured is like everyone being tortured, because the sound circulates throughout the space, through air vents and water pipes. You cannot escape it.”

Oliver continues:

Saydnaya detainees developed an acute aural sensitivity, able to identify the different sounds of belts, electrical cables or broomsticks on flesh, and the difference between bodies being punched, kicked or beaten against the wall.
“You try to build an image based on the sounds you hear,” says Salam Othman, a former Saydnaya detainee, in a video interview. “You know the person by the sound of his footsteps. You can tell the food times by the sound of the bowl. If you hear screaming, you know newcomers have arrived. When there is no screaming, we know they are accustomed to Saydnaya.”

Architecture of sound

You can find full details of the project, of its architectural and auditory modelling, and its findings here, and there is also an excellent video on YouTube:

Documenting what is happening provides an essential platform for political and eventually legal action against those responsible.  You can joint Amnesty’s campaign here (scroll down).  Please do.

‘Dearer to the Vultures’

Over at the Paris Review Scott Beauchamp has a beautiful short essay that complements my own reading of Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a Soldier: ‘Dearer to the Vultures‘.

Here’s how it begins:

My memories of war are fractured: faces disappear like smoke while literal plumes of smoke, their specific shapes and forms, linger on vividly for years. I remember the mesh netting, concrete, and dust smell of tower guard, but the events of entire months are completely gone. I remember the sound of a kid’s voice, but not anything he actually said. I guess that’s what Tim O’Brien meant when he wrote about Vietnam, “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning or end.”

Parker Anatomy of a soldierMemories of people, too complex to carry through the years, fall apart. It’s easier to find purchase on memories of objects. The weapon I was assigned on my first deployment to Iraq was an M249 SAW, or what we would colloquially and inaccurately refer to as the “Squad Assault Weapon.” I remember the way it felt to disassemble—the slight give of the heat-shield assembly, its tiny metal pincers clinging to the barrel. I remember the sound of the feed tray snapping shut on a belt of ammunition. And I remember the tiny rust deposits on the legs of my weapon’s bipod, which would never go away, no matter how hard I scrubbed with CLP (Cleaner, Lubricant, and Protectant oil). I remember my SAW’s voice and the things it said.

During my second deployment, I served as the gunner in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. We ran over two Soviet-era landmines that had been stacked on top of each other. Besides a few bruises and perforated eardrums, everyone in the crew was fine. When I would try to tell people the story back home, civilians would get caught up on the descriptions of objects they had never heard of, objects that were integral to understanding my experience of the event. “Were you hurt?” Not really, I’d say, but my head slammed against the ISU, and since we had the BFT mounted in a weird place, that sort of got in the way. “What’s an ISU and a BFT?”

I came to realize that the barrier in explaining my injuries to civilians wasn’t quite phenomenological so much as it was ontological. Everyone has experienced pain, fear, and frustration, but not everyone knows what an Integrated Sight Unit is or has had their face slammed into one. Even in just trying to narrate the events to family members, it seemed like any understanding of my trauma would have to come through a knowledge of the materials around me that made the trauma possible: the ISU, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the way the tracks moved, the type of soil underneath the tracks, how the mine mechanism worked, the radios we used to call in the explosion to base.

Harry Parker, a former British Army Captain, recently published Anatomy of a Soldier, a novel that puts forward an object-oriented ontology of war: an assertion that the material objects sharing the battleground with humans play an equal role in the composition of reality itself.

And the rest is equally worth reading, including some interesting reflections on ‘the rush from the intimate to the inanimate’ –and its limitations.

I first wrote about Anatomy of a Soldier here, followed it up with a notice of an interview with Harry Parker at the Imperial War Museum here (where I’m currently working, deep in the Research Room), and finally summarised my conference presentation on the book and its implications in San Francisco here (‘Object Lessons’: the presentation slides are available under the DOWNLOADS tab).

Object Lessons

I was supposed to give a shortened version of ‘Little boys and blue skies‘ at the AAG Annual Meeting in San Francisco (about drones and atomic war: available under the DOWNLOADS tab) and fully intended to do so.  But in the event – and as I implied in a previous post – I decided to talk instead about Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a soldier.  It was a spur of the moment decision, though it had been pricking away in my mind ever since I read the novel, and I only decided to do it at 10.30 the night before: madness.  But it was much closer to the theme of the sessions organised by Kate Kindervater and Ian Shaw on ‘Objects of Security and War: Material Approaches to Violence and Conflict‘ than my original presentation would have been.

I’ve added the presentation to those available under the DOWNLOADS tab (scroll right down).

I hope that most of it will be self-explanatory, but some notes might help.  I started out by invoking Tim O’Brien‘s twin accounts of the Vietnam War, The things they carried and If I should die in a combat zone, which provide vivid reminders of the weight – physical and emotional – borne by ground troops and the toll they impose on the soldier’s body.

I talked about this in ‘The natures of war‘ (also under the DOWNLOADS tab) and – following in the footsteps of that essay – I sketched a brief history of the objects soldiers carried in to the killing fields: from the Somme in 1916 through Arnhem in 1944 to Helmand in Afghanistan in 2014 [shown below].  My source for these images was photographer Thom Atkinson‘s portfolio of Soldiers’ Inventories.

KIT Helmand 2014

But I was more interested now in the objects that carried the soldiers, so to speak, which is why I turned to Anatomy of a soldier.  

In order to throw the novel into even sharper relief, I outlined some of the other ways in which IED blasts in Afghanistan have been narrated.  These ranged from the US Army’s own schematics [the image below is taken from a presentation by Captain Frederick Gaghan here]  to Brian Castner’s truly brilliant non-fiction All the ways we kill and die, in which he describes his investigation into the death of his friend Matt Schwartz from an IED blast in Helmand in January 2012. (This book has taught me more about the war in Afghanistan than anything – I mean anything – I’ve ever read).

GAGHAN Attacking the IED Network jpegs

All of this prepared the ground for Parker’s novel which tells the story of a young British officer in Helmand, Tom Barnes, who loses his legs to an IED blast – told in 45 short chapters by the different objects involved.  Not all of the chapters are wholly successful, but many of them are utterly compelling and immensely affecting.  The overall effect is to emphasize at once the corporeality of war – ‘virtually every object-fragment that is proximate to Barnes is impregnated with his body: its feel – its very fleshiness – its sweat, its smell, its touch’ – and the object-ness of military violence.

GREGORY The body as object-space

I juxtaposed the novel to Parker’s own story – he too lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan in July 2009.  Yet he constantly emphasises that he never wanted the novel to be about him.

Harry Parker reading from Anatomy of a Soldier, IWM, LOndon

Still, the body is central to all this – Parker’s body and Barnes’s body – and so finally I drew on Roberto Esposito‘s Persons and Things to draw the wider lesson and, in particular, to nail the treacherous lie of ‘bodiless war’:

GREGORY The things that carry them

GREGORY Bodiless war

Anatomy of a war

PARKER Anatomy of a soldier

‘He straightened and held me in one hand.  “Right, orders for tomorrow’s operation,” he said.   “We’re deploying most of the company for the first time and the whole platoon’s out together.  It’s a standard route security operation for the logistics convoy bringing in our supplies.  There’s nothing complicated about this patrol, but we’ll be static for long periods and that will make us vulnerable.  We have to clear all the roads in our AO and then secure it so the convoy can travel safely through.”  He moved his hand up my shaft and used me to point at the flat ground.

“Is everyone happy with the model?” he said.

There were a few silent nods from the watching men.

“Just to orientate you again.  This is our current location.”  He pointed me at a tiny block of wood near the centre of the grid that had PB43 written on it in peeling blue paint.  It was the largest of a hundred little wooden squares placed carefully across the earth and numbered in black.  “This is Route Hammer.”  He moved my end along a piece of orange ribbon that was pinned into the dirt.  “And this blue ribbon represents the river that runs past Howshal Nalay.”  I swept along the ribbon over a denser group of wooden blocks.  “These red markers are the IED finds in the last three months, so there’s quite a few on Hammer.”  I hovered over red pinheads…

He started describing the plan and used me to direct their attention to different parts of the square.  He said their mission was to secure the road and then provide rear protection.  He told them how they would move out before first light and push along the orange ribbon, past the blocks with L33 and L34 written on them.  I paused as he explained how vulnerable this point was, and that one team would provide overwatch at the block marked M13 while others cleared the road.

I was pointed at one of the men, who nodded that he understood.

He told them how they would spread out between block L42 and the green string.  Two other platoons would move through them and secure the orange ribbon farther up.  Then he swept me over the zones they were most likely to be attacked from.  He said the hardest part of the operation was to clear the crossroads at the area of interest named Cambridge; this was 6 Platoon’s responsibility.  I hovered over where the orange ribbon was crossed by white tape.

I had done it all before: secured sections of the ribbon, dominated areas of dirt, reassured little labels, ambushed red markers and attacked through clusters of wooden blocks.  I had destroyed as my end was pushed down hard and twisted into the ground.  I’d drawn lines in the sand that were fire-support positions and traced casualty evacuation routes through miniature fields.  I was master of the model.’

This passage comes from Harry Parker‘s stunning novel about the war in Afghanistan, Anatomy of a soldier (Faber, 2016).

In one sense, perhaps, it’s not so remarkable: the use of improvised physical models to familiarise troops with the local terrain is a commonplace even of later modern war.  In Rush to the intimate (DOWNLOADS tab) I described how in November 2004, immediately before the second US assault on Fallujah, US Marines constructed a large model of the city at their Forward Operating Base, in which roads were represented by gravel, structures under 40′ by poker chips and structures over 40′ by Lego bricks (see image below). Infantry officers made their own physical model of the city using bricks to represent buildings and spent shells to represent mosques.

Fallujah model

I called this a ‘rush from the intimate to the inanimate’, and discussed the ways in which the rendering of the city as an object-space empty of life was a powerfully performative gesture – one in which, as Anne Barnard put it, the soldiers straddled the model ‘like Gulliver in Lilliput’.

As the passage I’ve just quoted suggests, it was standard practice in Afghanistan too; here are soldiers from the Afghan National Army studying a model for Operation Tufan/Storm, a joint ANA/UK operation in Helmand:

Afghan Warriors Tackle Insurgents in Huge Joint Operation with Scottish Troops

So far, then, so familiar.  But the passage with which I began is remarkable because the narrator – whose shaft is gripped by the officer’s hand, who hovers over the orange ribbon, who confesses to having done it all before – is the handle of a broken broom.  ‘My first purpose was to hold my head down against the ground as I brushed sand out of a small, dirty room,’ the chapter begins.  ‘In time, my head loosened and the nail then held it on pulled free.  Someone tried to push it back on, but my head swung round and fell off.  I was discarded.’

‘That would have been the end of me,’ the broom handle continues – ‘my head was burned with the rubbish’ – ‘but I was reinvented and became useful again.’

The novel tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes, a British army officer who steps on an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan; he is airlifted to the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion and then evacuated to Britain; he loses both his legs, the first to the effects of the blast and the second to infection.  And the narrative is reconstructed through the objects that are entangled in – and which also, in an extraordinarily powerful sense, animate – the events.

So, for example, a tourniquet:

‘My serial number is 6545-01-522… A black marker wrote BA5799 O POS on me and I was placed in the left thigh pocket of BA5799’s combat trousers… At 0618 on 15 August, when I was sliding along BA5799’s thigh, I was lifted into the sky and turned over.  And suddenly I was in the light… I was pulled open by panicked fingers and covered in the thick liquid… I was wound tighter, gripping his thigh… I clung to him as we flew low across the fields and glinting irrigation ditches…’

CAT-Combat-Application-Tourniquet-740x476

The story is continued in and through other object-fragments.  On patrol, a boot; day-sack; helmet (‘My overhanging rim cut his vision as a black horizontal blur and my chinstrap bounced up against his stubble as he pounded onto each stride’); night vision goggles (‘My green light reflected off the glassy bulge of his retina’); a radio (‘His breathing deepened under the weight of the kit and condensation formed on the gauze of my microphone… I continued to play transmissions in BA5799’s ear as the other stations in the network pushed farther up the road’); an aerial photograph (‘He took me out and traced his finger across my surface… in the operations room a small blue sticker labelled B30 was moved across a map pinned to the wall.  That map was identical to me’); and his identity tags (‘I had dropped around your neck and my discs rested on the green canvas stretcher stained with your blood’).

Medical care en route to Bastion

After the blast from the IED and a helicopter evacuation, the medical apparatus: a tube inserted into his throat at Camp Bastion’s trauma centre (‘I was part of a system now; I was inside you…’); a surgical saw (‘He held me like a weapon, and down at the end of my barrel was my flat stainless-steel blade… My blade-end cut through the bone, flashing splinters and dust from the thin trench I gouged out’); a plasma bag (‘I hung over you… I was empty; my plastic walls had collapsed together and red showed only around my seals.  The rest of the blood I’d carried since a young man donated it after a lecture, joking with a mate in the queue, was now in you’); a catheter; a wheelchair; his series of prosthetics (‘You pressed your stump into me and we became one for the first time… Slowly you outgrew all my parts and the man switched them over until I only existed as separate components in a cupboard and you’d progressed to a high-activity leg and a carbon-fibre socket’).

The agency of many of the objects is viscerally clear:

‘I lived in the soil.  My spores existed everywhere in the decomposing vegetable matter of the baked earth.  Something happened that meant I was suddenly inside you…  I was inside your leg, deep among flesh that was torn and churned.  I lived there for a week and wanted to take root, but it wasn’t easy… I struggled to survive.  Except they missed a small haematoma that had formed around a collection of mud in your calf…  You degraded and I survived… I made you feverish and feasted unseen on your insides…’

Or again, his first prosthetics:

‘You improved on me but you became thinner.  The pressure I exerted on you, and the weight you lost from the energy I used, made your stump shrink.  I could no longer support you properly.’

And the new ones:

‘Your hand caressed my grey surface and felt around the hydraulic piston under my knee joint… You’d been waiting for me but were nervous about what I might do for you…’

What is even more remarkable, as many of the passages I have quoted demonstrate, is that these events are narrated through objects that in all sorts of ways show how military violence reduces not only the ground but the human body to an object-space, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in this remark: ‘You were not a whole to them, just a wound to be closed or a level on a screen to monitor or a bag of blood to be changed.’  And yet: virtually every one of those passages is also impregnated with Barnes’s body: its feel – its very fleshiness – its sweat, its smell, its touch.

O'BRIEN The things they carriedI think this is an even more successful attempt to render the corporeality of war through its objects than Tim O’Brien‘s brilliant account of Vietnam in The Things They Carried (for more, see my post on ‘Boots on the Ground‘ and my essay on ‘The natures of war’: DOWNLOADS tab). This is, in part, because the narrative is not confined to those objects close to Barnes’ own body; it spirals far beyond them to include a drone providing close air support (‘I banked around the area and my sensor zoomed out again and I could see the enemy in relation to the soldiers who needed me’) and, significantly, extends to the components of the IED and the bodies of the insurgents who constructed and buried it.

There is a powerful moment when the two collide, when the father of a young insurgent killed in the drone strike wheels his son’s body to the patrol base:

‘The corpse was half in me, with my front end under it and my handles sticking up in the air.  He managed to push it farther into me and the distended head bounced off my metal side.  Dried blood showed around its ears and nose and was red in its mouth.  And then he pushed my handles down and I scooped it all up…  The corpse’s eyes had opened from the jolting and looked up at him.  He looked down into them, at his son’s face and the blue lips and purple blotching across his cheeks and he knew he had already accepted the loss.  He lowered my handles and smoothed the eyelids shut again.  He pushed me down the road.’

Barnes reaches for a compensation form, which takes up the story:

‘There was a leaflet that BA5799 had read tucked in the notebook next to me.  It described how to deal with this.  What to say, what not to say…  He was dealing with death in an alien culture and he had no idea how to relate to this man or the death of his son…  BA5799 wanted to feel compassion for this man and his dead son but only felt discomfort and the man’s eyes challenging him.  And all he cared about was getting back into the base and the loss of a potential asset in securing the area.’

All of these criss-crossing, triangulating lines capture not only the anatomy of a soldier but an anatomy of the war itself – at once calmly, coolly and shockingly abstract – in a word, objectified – and invasively, terrifyingly, ineluctably intimate.

***

Harry Parker (Ben Murphy photo)Postscript: You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Anatomy of a soldier is based on Harry Parker’s own experience.  Out on patrol with his men on 18 July 2009 in central Helmand he stepped on an IED; he lost his lower left leg in the blast and had his lower right leg amputated at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham (the major centre for advanced trauma care for the British military).  ‘‘Writing about the explosion felt good creatively,’ he told Christian House, ‘but also you’ve mined your personal experiences’ and the process left him ‘a sweaty mess’.  I’ve written about what Roy Scranton calls ‘the trauma hero‘ before, and so it’s important to add that Parker insists that the novel is not disguised autobiography: ‘I didn’t want to write, “I was in the Helmand valley.”’

One other note: at the AAG meeting in San Francisco next month Iain Shaw and Katherine Kindervater have organised a series of really interesting sessions on Objects of Security and War:

These sessions aim to bring together scholars working in the areas of war and security that are attentive to the materialities of contemporary violence and conflict. We are especially interested in work that seeks to place objects of security and war within a wider set of practices, assemblages, bodies, and histories. From drones and documents, to algorithms and atom bombs, the materiality of state power continues to anchor and disrupt the conduct and geography of (international) violence.

I’m part of those sessions – but reading Anatomy of a soldier has made me think about giving an altogether different presentation. I’ve long argued that we need to disrupt that lazy divide between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ and that literature is able to convey important truths that evade conventional academic prose (hence my unbounded admiration for Tom McCarthy‘s C, for example).  And Anatomy of a soldier convinces me that I’ll find more inspiration in novels like that than in whole libraries on object-oriented philosophy…